Thursday 22 February 2018

Minimum pricing in Wales - the final PR push

I was on BBC Radio Wales this morning talking about minimum pricing (you can listen from 38 minutes in). This was prompted by the thrilling news that the people at Sheffield University who have spent the last ten year pushing minimum pricing are still in favour of it.

I gather that their latest government-commissioned report claims that 66 lives will be extended in Wales (population: 3 million) if drinkers respond to a 50p minimum price in the implausible ways that the Sheffield team assume. This is up from 53 in their previous report for reasons that are almost certainly not worth bothering with. Since there are around 1,500 alcohol-related deaths in Wales each year, it's doubtful whether such a small change can even be measured.

The media haven't shown much interest in the 66 theoretical lives that will be theoretically saved at a cost of millions of pounds to consumers. Instead they have focused on this statistic from the latest Sheffield publication:

75% of all alcohol consumed in Wales is drunk by the 22% of the adult population who are hazardous or harmful drinkers, according to a new report.

Within this – the 3% of the population who are harmful drinkers, account for 27% of all alcohol consumed.

This is just the Pareto Principle. It's no surprise to hear that most alcohol is drunk by people who drink the most. A fifth of Welsh adults don't drink at all so they obviously account for 0% of sales. 58% drink little (less than 14 units per week) and so account for relatively few sales. It says a lot about the decline in drinking in the UK that only 22% of Welsh adults consume more than 14 units a week and only 3 per cent are 'harmful drinkers' (defined as >35 units per week for women and >50 units per week for men.

As I discovered when I gave evidence in Cardiff - and as was confirmed in my interview today - the Welsh government has accepted that minimum pricing won't help the 'harmful drinkers' who have a dependency on alcohol, but they are hopeful of changing the ways of people like me who laugh in the face of the 14 units target.

It looks as if the Welsh government is going to go ahead with the policy because they're already starting to manage expectations. A spokesman says: 'Minimum unit pricing is not intended to work in isolation' and Alcohol Concern Wales says: 'Minimum pricing is one way to solve it but there's no cure.' It's a sure sign that an underwhelming 'public health' policy is on the way when campaigners start playing the 'no silver bullet' card.

Just before my interview on BBC Wales, listeners were treated to an audio clip of Sheffield University bullshit vendor Colin Angus turning the lies up to eleven. He said:

'Minimum unit pricing is a very well targeted policy because it very specifically affects the alcohol that's only purchased, really, by heavier drinkers.'

This is totally untrue. As the IFS and others have shown, 70 per cent of all off-trade sales will be affected and Angus's own report says that 22 per cent of the alcohol bought by moderate drinkers is currently bought at less than 50p.

Moderate drinking here is defined as 14 units a week or less. Under the previous definition of 21 units or less for men, minimum pricing would affect moderate consumers even more. This shows why the neo-temperance lobby were so keen to change the guidelines. It has a material and significant effect on the statistics, inflating the number of hazardous drinkers and reducing adverse effects of regressive policies on 'moderate' drinkers.

As regular readers will recall, the guidelines were changed largely as a result of another implausible model created by... the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group. That model initially supported a threshold of 21 units but the team made unjustifiable changes to their methodology at the eleventh hour in order to support a lowering of the limits after Public Health England told them to.

In any serious field of academia, being exposed as a gun for hire who is prepared to change your model if your funder writes you an additional cheque would be career-ending. It would surely be enough for the government contracts to dry up. In the world of 'public health', however, it is no barrier at all. In fact, it probably helps.

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